The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted this morning to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the extra scrutiny the IRS gave to conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
During two appearances before the committee, Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. But during her first appearance, she read a written statement proclaiming her innocence, therefore waiving her constitutional right not to testify, Republicans said.
Democrats on the committee, and Lerner’s attorney, disagreed. According to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Congress has never had much success in prosecuting people who refused to testify. The only examples provided by the Congressional Research Service involved people called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s.
“I do not want to go back to the shameful era when Congress tried to strip away the constitutional rights of American citizens under the bright lights of hearings that had nothing to do with responsible oversight and everything to do with the worst kind of partisan politics,” Cummings said.
From the beginning, Democrats have claimed Republicans only want to go after Lerner to keep the IRS targeting scandal alive. But Republicans insist she needs to be held accountable for her actions.
“We need Ms. Lerner’s testimony to complete our oversight work,” said Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “American taxpayers certainly don’t get to plead the Fifth and escape all accountability when the IRS audits them.”
An attorney for 41 organizations suing the federal government over the illegal targeting said after the vote the committee’s action was appropriate.
“Lerner has misled the American people and Congress from the very start,”said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice. “Contempt is justified and the appropriate sanction in this case.”
The committee’s recommendation to hold Lerner in contempt—approved with a 21-12 party-line vote—will now go to the full House. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seemed confident Republicans would have no problem approving the measure.
“If Lois Lerner continues to refuse to testify, then the House will hold her in contempt,” he said.
The House Ways and Means Committee voted separately Wednesday to refer Lerner to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. The committee’s investigators say they have evidence she may have violated the constitutional rights of conservative groups, misled investigators, and risked exposing confidential taxpayer information. But Lerner’s chances of facing prosecution by her former Obama administration colleagues are slim to none.